After Gaston Bachelard
Your mother, reading, on the stairs in light
poured in a wide shaft. At night, shadows,
soft thuds and pleading, clink-clink of his ice
in the glass. Your mother, reading. Light seen
through a chink in a cellar wall. The attic air,
dry and dancing with bright motes. You know
it’s there, at the top of the house, the stairs
you must muster the mind to ascend. But how?
Where is the first step? Your old notebooks,
dust-felted, stacked up somewhere. Your mother,
reading. The sense of another life, inside
and outside the walls. An attic, other upper rooms
in the home. Other homes. You are a mother now
too—so many open mouths, so much to do—
your mother, reading. For herself. Showing you.
The poem owes a large debt to Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, from which it takes (among other things) the idea of a house and its rooms, especially the attic, as evocative of something more abstract, psychological, and universal than the physical structure. I was captivated, for example, by Gaston’s idea of the bird hollowing the shape of its nest—its “house”—by means of the pressure of its own breast. A nest round and hollow because it is the exact inverse reflection of the creature that created it.
I wrote “Forgotten Image” during a major revision of my current manuscript, a collection of sonnets (or "sonnetishs," as some have called them) that, among other things, tells an identity formation story. Scales-falling-from-eyes, acquisition of breadth of vision, that sort of thing. It also makes social commentary on a narrow, privileged swathe of society from the inside, sometimes in the sardonic manner of Juvenal. I used to describe the book as the Seven Deadly Sins on the cocktail circuit in Marin. In it, the narrator is an outsider among insiders. As seen in the lines “The sense of another life, inside / and outside the walls,” the inside/outside dichotomy is an important theme, sometimes realized as rooms and spaces inside and outside a house, another idea from Bachelard. With the "and outside" I was trying to pull in two things: one, the idea of a thing, in this case a "life," having an ontological existence precedent to its expression (what Bachelard calls "reverberation"), the concept of some ideal life outside its expression as the walls of a house, and two, the concept, acquired through reading, of a life outside the home, something bigger and broader and an alternative to (or escape from) the domestic life. Maybe “one” and “two” are almost the same, but in a nod to Bachelard, “one” includes the notion of the ideal. That is asking a lot of two words!
So, the narrator of “Forgotten Image” hails from a different world, one that tugs at her. One where a child accumulated the notebooks that in the present tense of the poem are neglected, felted in dust. Where she sat in sunlit stairs to the attic and first apprehended something other. And where her mother’s reading played a pivotal role, not just in modeling a way to be able to live in a house that has become inimical but also as a way to discover an actual, physical escape from it.
In this poem and in the book as a whole is the idea that specifically where we live and how we acquiesce to that, or resist it, is what shapes us—kind of the inverse of Bachelard’s image of the bird shaping the nest. In the book, point of view begins in a dysfunctional place with the more honest and heartfelt poems about the speaker’s experience narrated in the third person, and first person used almost exclusively in persona poems. Over the course of the book POV becomes more integrated, so that by section IV, where “Forgotten Image” is from, the poems are more close to the bone, mostly narrated straightforwardly from the first person, in the speaker’s own voice. (This was not planned, but is something I noticed after I had organized the book.) Thus, the POV moves from alienated to integrated, and the voice from bitterness to cautious hope, and the latter qualities are what I wanted to capture in this poem, those and a sense of gratitude for reading in general and for the mother that gave the gift of reading to the speaker. As my mother did, to me.
Rebecca Foust’s books include God, Seed (2010 Foreword Book of the Year Award) and All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song (Many Mountains Moving Book Award.) New poems are in Hudson Review, Narrative, Sewanee Review, Southern Indian Review, Zyzzyva, and book reviews and essays and stories are in American Book Review, Calyx, Chautauqua Journal, Prairie Schooner, Rumpus, and elsewhere. Rebecca has been featured in NAR multiple times: "Forgotten Image" from issue 298.2, "Gratitude for an Autistic Son" from issue 297.2, and "The Cormorant" from issue 294.2.